Mark Sykes: Northern Ireland dream is inspiring my upturn in Oxford fortunes
Mark Sykes has revealed that his ultimate aim is to play in the Northern Ireland senior side having become a first-team regular with Oxford United.
The 22-year-old midfielder has started and shone in three successive victories for Oxford, helping them jump to fifth place in the League One table and having inspired Karl Robinson's team to a famous 4-0 win over West Ham at the Kassam Stadium in the Carabao Cup last month.
Sykes came off the bench against the Premier League side 23 minutes in and created the first two goals for the home team as they nailed the Hammers.
The Belfast native would love to perform more Cup heroics tonight against Sunderland, with a place in the quarter-finals the reward for the victors.
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill is an admirer of the young midfielder, who excelled for Ian Baraclough's Under-21 side in the Euro campaign where they were close to qualification.
O'Neill has brought classy Sykes into his squad to train with senior players and he has never looked out of place. Surely a first cap at the highest level cannot be far away.
"That's my main aim, but I know I won't get it handed to me," said Sykes.
"I need to put in performances for my club and show I'm capable of it. Michael O'Neill sent me a text after the West Ham match to say that I'd done well which I really appreciated.
"When I've been with the senior squad I've felt as though I've trained well, and in terms of getting the first cap, when the opportunity comes hopefully I can grab it with both hands and make an impact."
He's already doing that at Oxford. It could have been different, though, because in the summer it was suggested to Sykes he'd have to go out on loan to League Two in order to experience first-team action.
Always a player with faith in his ability, the midfielder backed himself.
"At the end of last season I was playing a lot of games and we were getting points on the board, and the manager told me I was in his plans for the coming season," explained Sykes.
"Unfortunately I picked up a knock against Rangers in pre-season and it took time to recover from it.
"I should have gone and had a scan but tried to train on and play games. That went against me because the manager didn't see the qualities that I had.
"The thing with the loan move wasn't ideal. They wanted me to go to League Two to get minutes, but I said to the manager I didn't feel I needed to go on loan and that I felt I could play in the team. I really wanted to stay and fight for my place. That's what I'm doing and working very hard.
"Last year I was playing for Glenavon so I'm on a massive learning curve. I'm far from the finished article and I want to learn every day and enjoy it," added Sykes, who feels more settled with his partner Courtney now living with him in England.
As for that dynamic display versus West Ham, it was made all the more special as he went head-to-head with a player he has looked up to for years.
"I was an Arsenal fan growing up and Jack Wilshere was playing for West Ham. He was brilliant at Arsenal and has achieved a lot in his career, so for me going from where I was to be playing against him and holding my own was enjoyable," said Sykes.
"I was playing midfield and then the manager changed our formation and asked me to play more on the right. It was a great feeling when my crosses led to our first two goals.
"There was great confidence throughout the team by that stage and we kept going forward and ended up winning 4-0 which was an amazing result for us."